By Michael Nutley | Writer for The Drum

July 19, 2022 | 9 min read

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There has never been a better time for brands to take advantage of sport to get their marketing messages across to consumers.

sports marketing advertising

New tech is opening up a whole new world of sponsorship opportunities for sports marketers

This was the key takeaway from The Drum’s ‘Creativity at fever pitch: How to activate data, AI, and automation in sports advertising’ panel session at Cannes Lions 2022, presented in partnership with Genius Sports.

In a year that has the men’s football World Cup at its end, the women’s Euros already underway, the Commonwealth Games and many other major sporting events in between, there’s never been a better time to debate the intersection of sports and marketing.

Discussing this with Cameron Clarke, editor at The Drum were:

  • Lauren Evans, chief marketing officer at Spirable (part of Genius Sports)

  • Olya Dyachuk, data-driven media director at The HEINEKEN Company

  • Dominic Carter, senior associate director at MediaCom

  • Kate Easterling, global vice president, experience at Essence

The session considered how multiple factors have converged to make sport a more powerful and attractive marketing vehicle than ever. These include the growth of interest in women’s sport which is generating authentic role models and a sporting audience that is increasingly diverse and inclusive; a shift in consumer expectations around sports-related content and a growing demand for such content to be on consumers’ terms, rather than on media owners’.

Meanwhile, technology is constantly opening up new advertising niches and opportunities around sporting events; while leveling the playing field for brands beyond the world of multimillion dollar sponsorships.

Each of these factors is reinforcing the existing benefits sport offers advertisers: huge, loyal, and committed audiences; unscripted, must-watch action; and a massive appetite among fans for content about their teams, noted Essence’s Easterling.

“It’s so much harder to reach consumers now,” she added. “When you have sports, you have an audience that is already so excited, engaged, and passionate. When done right it’s a very easy way to have a conversation with your consumer, with your audience, and reach them in a meaningful way. And if you do it authentically and you do it well, it really works.”

Easterling further noted that making the most of partners and sporting influencers can further help to engage sports audiences, citing Google's work with tennis star Naomi Osaka as a key example. She added: "Working with another partner can bring to life campaigns because they already have an audience and credibility in the space."

An evolving audience

Authenticity is key to build rapport and buy-in among sporting audiences, but this also means adjusting to and meeting the demands of an increasingly inclusive sporting audience. Heineken already has a wide range of sponsorships across both male and female sports.

"At last year's Euros, we ran a campaign that was an amazing testament to appropriate through-the-line marketing, running from TV all the way down to activating performance campaigns on social channels," said Dyachuk. "We created more consideration moments around results and live scores, helping people to tap into those and the Heineken brand."

This year Heineken are sponsoring the women’s Euros and launched a new campaign to support it – ‘passion knows no gender - cheers to all fans’.

“It’s part of Heineken’s wider commitment to advance inclusivity in the sporting world by elevating women’s sports and ensuring all fans are able to celebrate the sports they love,” said Dyachuk. “Sports are becoming so inclusive and it is driving a massive change culturally, for brands and consumers. Four-out-of-ten football fans are women according to findings by Uefa in 2021.”

“This inclusivity is going to drive a massive boost in women’s sports, and as a result drive a lot of investments,” she added. “This market is predicted to be worth $1bn globally by 2023 (Two Circles, 2021), and every brand and publisher has a role to play in helping the industry become more inclusive. And that means we can bring more diverse audiences to follow it as well.”

At the same time as this change is happening, the type of sporting content that audiences want is also evolving, as are the ways they want to consume it.

“The consumer is driving change,” Dyachuk continued. “People want relevant content, they want to get this content at the right moment, and then they are ready for the value exchange. What that means for us is that we need to stay on top of things and balance the mass reach approach with very moment-driven, real-time, almost predictive approaches as well.”

In-the-moment action captures attention

New audiences need new content, and this is one of the areas where technology is not only creating new opportunities but enabling brands to capitalize on them, says Genius Sports’ Evans:

“The whole live data aspect is super-exciting. How do you connect what’s going on in the live game, to your content, so that, when somebody scores a goal, your creative and messaging stays relevant? It’s this in-the-moment action that captures attention and stands out on people’s newsfeed or platform they’re using. Tech is the only way to bring these sport activations to life at the speed and scale needed to keep up with the action.”

It’s these new data-driven activations that are opening up the world of sport to a whole raft of different brands, explained MediaCom’s Carter.

“If you look at linear TV advertising during breaks for Premier League football, for example, it’s premium lager, it’s Domino’s Pizza, and it’s gambling,” he said. “What we’re doing digitally is completely different. We’re looking to find those people who wouldn’t fit neatly into that kind of Venn diagram and are perhaps outside it.”

Carter cited potentially left-field brand collaborations such as between the cognac brand, Hennessey, and the NBA as evidence of how digital campaigns can diverge from more traditional and ‘obvious’ brand collaborations for sports advertising campaigns.

“You might think Hennessey-drinking basketball fans are incredibly niche, but what we’ve seen from the activation we did with Genius Sports is that they’re an incredibly engaged group of fans, and by linking the association that already exists within a digital platform, you see uplift in the recall and reliability of your campaign, which you perhaps wouldn’t see by going down a more conventional route.”

Automation solves the content problem

One of the barriers to the kind of mass personalization these new sports activations involve is the need for a huge spectrum of content. Again, technology holds the key.

“That’s where automation and dynamic creative come in, to create ads for these platforms,” noted Evans. “Technology is important here because it simplifies things. It would be nearly impossible to create the hundreds, thousands, or potentially millions of different personalized and relevant ad variations if doing it manually.”

The other issue, as Dyachuk pointed out, is getting the rest of the business on board. She explained how Heineken’s activation for last year's Euros meant working extremely closely with ecommerce and customer teams to align with retailer plans, while also asking the on-trade team to gather the addresses of 7,000 pubs for an online footfall-driving campaign.

“Technology is amazing in helping us to streamline our processes,” she said, “but you can’t underestimate how many people you need to take on the journey to build the trust you need to turn this activity into a part of business as usual.”

Tech then is fundamental to the future advertising success of brands hoping to reach sporting audiences. Evans agrees, concluding that “sports fans want to get closer to the action and technology enables this. The next wave of technology will be in the Metaverse with virtual stadiums and games bringing live action to people’s homes. This opens up a whole new world of sponsorship opportunities. People want to be entertained, so it’s about using the formats and the data that's actually useful, and that your audience is going to be most interested in. Going forward, that's going to be essential.”

Watch the full Creativity At Fever Pitch: How To Activate Data, AI, And Automation In Sports Advertising panel discussion at the top of this article, or discover other sessions from the Croisette in The Drum's Cannes 2022 hub.

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